The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Story of Our Lives” is a 201-line narration divided into seven numbered sections. Although the title suggests a history, the poem plays with the discrepancy between what one would expect in a story and the speaker’s reluctance or inability to share substantial narrative details. To be sure, traditional narrative elements exist: The speaker reveals that the poem takes place in a room that looks out onto a street, and there are characters. The plural pronouns “we” and “our” in the poem hint at a married couple whose life is not so much told as lived, a life upon which the speaker meditates. Another important “character” exists and speaks in the poem: the book that contains the story of their lives from which the poet quotes; fifty-six lines (28 percent of the total) are italicized as coming from this book. In other words, another important tension in the poem lies between the story in the book that the speaker quotes and the story that arises from his own meditations.

The poem’s seven sections suggest an ironic, archetypal period of creation. Although stories usually record past events, this poem, written mostly in the present tense, presents an unfolding of events. Sections 1 and 2 both begin with the line “We are reading the story of our lives.” In the first section, the couple is sitting on the couch reading, “hoping for something/ something like mercy or change.” The first notes of barrenness are sounded: “it would...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Mark Strand’s “The Story of Our Lives” plays at pushing language to its limits. One device with which the poet attempts to accomplish this is the use of patterns of assertion and contradiction. Many lines blatantly run against each other: “so much seemed to vanish,/ so much seemed to come to life again.” In another instance, the characters vow to patch up their lives and then do nothing. When the speaker says, “I say yes to everything./ You cannot hear me,” one wonders what good a universal affirmation is if the person to whom he is speaking does not hear it. Toward the end of the poem, the couple is “horrified by their innocence,” and, two lines later, they are “determined to accept the truth”; the juxtaposition of active and passive reactions pushes language against itself.

A variation of this strategy is the use of sentences that contradict each other only if read in a certain way: “If only we could stop reading./ He never wanted to read another book.” If the second clause is interpreted as meaning “he wanted to read only this book,” it contradicts the meaning “he was tired of reading all books.” Another instance of contradictory language based on interpretation is the assertion that “The book will not survive./ We are living proof of that.” Since the poem postulates that “they are the book,” how can they be living proof of the book not surviving? Yet another variation of this device...

(The entire section is 532 words.)